The House that Tom Rebuilt
STORY BY HENRY J. CORDES | COVER PHOTO BY ALYSSA SCHUKAR
Tom Osborne was already a living legend when he returned to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to lead the Cornhusker athletic department. But what he’s accomplished over the past five years may well be worthy of the school erecting another statue in his likeness outside the Tom and Nancy Osborne Athletic Complex.
As athletic director, Osborne has presided over a $120 million building boom that, by the time it's completed next year, will leave NU with athletic facilities rivaling any in the country.
The iconic former football coach worked to restore a winning culture within a football program that had lost its way.
Amid an ever-shifting and perilous college sports landscape, he helped Nebraska secure membership in the Big Ten -- arguably the nation's most prestigious athletic conference.
But most of those who work with him say such things don't even rank as the most important achievement of his return engagement at NU. They recall how he arrived during a time of great internal anxiety and strife and quickly got everyone in and around the department again working as a team.
Along the way, Osborne restored and enhanced the department's unique culture, one he had a strong hand in shaping during a quarter-century leading the Husker football program. In fact, the core principles of that culture are something anyone who ever strapped on a helmet for Osborne would surely recognize: Doing things the right way. Putting the education and welfare of student-athletes first. Everyone pulling together as one, all for the good of that Big Red N.
"The best analogy I could give, if I could play football for Tom, I'd run through a wall for him," said John Cook, coach of Nebraska's powerhouse volleyball team. "That's the culture he's built here. It's awesome to be part of it."
Now as Tom Osborne on Jan. 1 is set to once again leave the university and slide into retirement, he leaves behind an athletic department that -- in ways both concrete and intangible -- stands strongly positioned for the future. For the inspired and steady leadership he has brought to NU athletics, The World-Herald today recognizes Osborne as its 2012 Midlander of the Year.
This is the third time the 75-year-old Osborne has been so honored, joining former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator J.J. Exon in that distinction.
Osborne's service to the state now spans a half-century, from the time in 1962 that the tall redhead from Hastings working toward a Ph.D. in educational psychology wrote a letter to Husker coach Bob Devaney asking to serve as a graduate assistant. He leaves a legacy that ranks with the most far-reaching and accomplished of anyone in the state's history:
›› Retiring in 1997 as one of the greatest coaches ever to walk a college football sideline, claiming three national championships and helping turn the Big Red into an enduring passion in Nebraska.
›› Serving three terms in Congress.
›› Founding, along with wife Nancy, a mentoring program that has touched the lives of thousands of at-risk youth.
›› Setting the future foundation for NU athletics.
"It's incredible how much he has accomplished and how much he has given of himself for others," said Mike Yanney, an Omaha businessman and friend of Osborne's. "He is one of the finest role models the state of Nebraska has seen -- in all aspects of life."
To Chancellor Harvey Perlman, Osborne's lifelong contributions to Nebraska go to the heart of the state's very aspirations: He's given Nebraskans the confidence to believe that a small-population state miles from either coast can muster the drive, resources and grit to compete with anyone in the country.
But what has always stood out about Osborne has not been so much what he's done, but the way he's done it -- with character, care, generosity, loyalty, faith and humanity. And, in typical Osborne fashion, he's been humble all the way.
"That foundation of what he believes has never changed," said Darin Erstad, who punted on Osborne's first national championship team and now coaches Husker baseball. "His actions have always spoken louder than his words."
There is, indeed, only one Tom Osborne. Likely no one in Nebraska is more recognized or beloved. But while many have tried to sum up what makes Osborne seem such a mythical figure, it may be as simple as this: While we all aspire to such high and noble traits, Osborne has simply and consistently lived them.
Along the way, the Osborne name has almost become synonymous with what it means to be a Nebraskan. With his work ethic and culture of integrity, selflessness and modesty, Nebraskans have come to see in the uncommon man from the Plains a reflection of their ideals.
As NU Associate Athletic Director Marc Boehm simply put it:
"He is Nebraska."
The football program that Osborne and Devaney had so painstakingly built was now flailing, having followed a long and bitter path over the previous decade to fall to that point.
After Osborne retired at the top of his game in 1997 -- the Huskers having won three national titles in four years -- he handed the NU program to Frank Solich, his hand-picked successor.
But near the end of a 10-3 season in 2003, Athletic Director Steve Pederson fired Solich. Husker fans had become sharply divided over whether Solich -- who took Nebraska to a national title game in 2001 but also suffered through a 7-7 season in 2002 -- was capable of carrying on Osborne's championship legacy. Inarguably, the firing marked the end of an era.
Pederson brought in Bill Callahan, who proceeded to give NU an NFL-style makeover. The ground-pounding running game that Osborne made Nebraska's bread-and-butter was replaced with a "West Coast" passing attack. Callahan also significantly cut back on the renowned walk-on program, eliminating many of the homegrown kids that Osborne believed infused Nebraska football with its soul. Much of what had made Nebraska unique had fallen by the wayside.
Callahan's first team in 2004 went 5-6 and ended Nebraska's treasured string of 35 straight bowl appearances. After some modest success in the following two years, his 2007 team imploded. In October, the Huskers suffered back-to-back blowout losses, including the worst home loss in half a century.
Husker fans were downtrodden and angry, and there was talk the school's 45-year run of football sellouts could be the next streak to fall. That was no small matter in an athletic department where football pays nearly all the bills. "This thing could have crashed and burned," said Ron Brown, a longtime Husker football assistant.
Less obvious to the public was the turmoil and disarray swirling within the walls of the athletic department.
Pederson's decisions and style had put off many outside boosters and former athletes. Ex-Huskers said they got the feeling they were no longer welcome around the program.
"It wasn't that you were forgotten -- it was worse," said Jack Stark, who had served as team psychologist under Osborne and Solich. "It was as if they didn't want to have anything to do with you."
And employees say the internal atmosphere had turned stifling, corporate and cold. They feared crossing Pederson. Most troubling to department workers was an East Coast business consultant whom Pederson had brought in who tried to impose a more corporate culture.
Some longtime employees were fired, and other key staffers resigned. Many more feared for their jobs, some undergoing counseling for stress. "Everyone was looking over their shoulder," Boehm said. "People were scared, not only for their job, but for the future of the athletic department."
Perlman would cite such "management style" issues -- not the shambles that football had become -- in announcing in October 2007 his decision to fire Pederson. (Pederson over the years has repeatedly declined to comment on issues related to his termination at Nebraska).
Perlman knew immediately whom he needed to turn to next. In his mind, there was only one person capable of immediately uniting the fractured fan base and restoring calm. So the day before he announced the Pederson firing, he reached out to Tom Osborne.
It was almost serendipitous that Osborne was even available to take Perlman's call.
After his retirement, Osborne missed football terribly, twice tempted to return to coaching at other schools. He would, over time, grow estranged from the NU athletic department, particularly embittered over the Solich firing and distraught at seeing NU's traditions fall by the wayside.
Osborne eventually found a new diversion in politics, elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska's 3rd District in 2000. The best thing about the job: it took him out of Nebraska for much of the football season.
After serving three terms in the House, Osborne then suffered a surprising loss in a 2006 race for governor. That setback effectively ended his political career -- but it opened the door to a new chapter in his life when Perlman called a year later.
The then-70-year-old Osborne was the right man for the time. His hiring as interim athletic director elicited cheers across the state, his mere presence in Lincoln on game days assuring fans things would be OK. And his return was greeted with palpable relief inside the athletic department.
During his first meeting with the athletic staff, Osborne cracked a self-deprecating joke, flashing his trademark little stone-faced grin. And then he told everyone he knew how valuable they were. "I know we've got a lot of great people here," he said.
It was as if the entire room exhaled at once; several staffers were moved to tears.
Osborne moved immediately to patch relations with disaffected boosters, former players and staff. And he made time for everyone -- whether the janitor or a top administrator. He put faith in the staff and worked to develop a common sense of purpose.
Shawn Eichorst, the former University of Miami athletic director who will succeed Osborne this week, said it's clear Osborne's values now permeate the department.
"Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day," he said. "You've got to have a solid culture. I see and feel that here."
There had once been a time that old football coaches frequently slid into athletic director's chairs. But that was more than two decades ago, before major college sports evolved into a big-dollar business of media rights, shoe deals, merchandise licensing and nonstop fundraising. It's a job that today requires the business acumen of a CEO, political savvy and the ability to glad-hand boosters.
For those reasons, most originally assumed that Osborne's tenure would be a short one. But Perlman and Osborne would soon drop the "interim" from Osborne's title.
Osborne would prove over time that he had no problem functioning in a modern athletic department. He was bright and well-organized. As the guy who unflinchingly went for two points and a win in a failed national title bid in 1984, Osborne had no trouble making tough decisions.
Moreover, Osborne had some things he wanted to accomplish -- and not a lot of time to do them.
"I think when he took the job he knew he wasn't going to be here 20 years, so he pretty much ran a sprint," said Rhonda Revelle, Nebraska's head softball coach. "He didn't do it to leave a legacy. He did it to leave Nebraska in great shape."
At that time, top athletic directors could command salaries approaching $1 million. But Osborne insisted that he not be paid more than Perlman, so his salary was set at $250,000.
Job one for Osborne was fixing football. He fired Callahan and soon after hired Bo Pelini, a defensive whiz who had served on Solich's 2003 staff.
The unflappable Osborne and fiery Pelini were complete opposites in temperament. But Osborne saw in the hard-nosed Pelini a sharp football mind, a personality that related well to players and an understanding of Nebraska's unique football tradition.
Pelini pumped new life into the walk-on program. He secured a winning record in his first season. And then came within just a second of a conference championship in his second year. In five seasons under Pelini, the Huskers have never failed to win at least nine games -- the longtime standard under Osborne.
But the Huskers also lost numerous big games that could have vaulted the program back to national prominence. Three times in the last four years, the Huskers have fallen short in conference championship games, including a 70-31 pasting by Wisconsin earlier this month in the Big Ten title game.
While that has created some unrest within a Husker fan base desperately longing to get back to championships -- some even suggesting that Bo must go -- Osborne said he'll retire feeling football is in good hands.
Nebraska is one of only four schools to have won at least nine games over each of the past five seasons. Many of the game's biggest coaching names never won a championship during their first five years, Osborne said. It took Osborne six years to claim his first win over archrival Oklahoma.
"I think there are probably way more mistakes made pulling the trigger too quickly than not quickly enough," Osborne said.
While many fans long for the way things were in 1997, Osborne said, college football has changed. Pelini needs to shape his program to fit today's game. It would be a mistake for the coach to try to replicate what Osborne's staff did 15 years ago.
Osborne said he's also optimistic that the best days for Pelini's Huskers are ahead of them. "I have a good feeling about next year," he said.
Perhaps the most far-reaching change under Osborne's watch has been Nebraska's switch from the Big 12 to the Big Ten -- a move Perlman says might never have happened without Osborne.
During 2010, the chase for television dollars was creating a seismic realignment of the major conferences. There was concern that Nebraska -- with a strong football tradition but little in the way of population or TV sets -- could be left in the cold.
But NU's longtime football success under Osborne put NU on the Big Ten's radar. And when Perlman and Osborne sat down for a secret meeting with Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, Delany was impressed by Osborne's straightforward style and emphasis that any marriage needed to be a strong cultural fit.
Just two weeks after that May 2010 meeting, Delany was welcoming Osborne and Nebraska to the Big Ten. The Big Ten brand figures to pay big dividends over time for Nebraska, both athletically and academically.
The most visible mark Osborne will leave behind in Lincoln is all the new facilities -- a building push rooted in Osborne's belief in the importance of recruiting.
While Nebraska has some of the best people in college athletics, Osborne said, it's difficult to get top-tier athletes to come to Lincoln to see that without the lure of top-notch facilities.
Fitting with Osborne's longtime emphasis on academics and preparing athletes for life, the first building project he took on was a new student life center. It's a first-class facility where Husker athletes can seek tutoring and academic advice and receive life skills training.
"He is all about the student-athlete," Husker women's basketball coach Connie Yori said of Osborne. "Always has been."
Then Osborne opened up a state-of-the-art basketball practice facility. Coupled with the move to a new home court next fall in Lincoln's new downtown arena, the facilities could offer promise for an NU men's program that has languished.
"If things work out as we hope," Perlman said, "part of Tom's legacy, in an ironic way, is a basketball program that is consistently better supported and better performing."
Osborne also dusted off decade-old plans for an indoor practice facility for baseball and softball, critical to a Northern school aiming to compete with the best. When Eichorst recently met with Erstad and asked if there was anything he needed, the Husker coach laughed. Erstad considers his facilities the best in the country.
The Devaney Center is being renovated to become one the best home courts for volleyball in the country, featuring the sport's first-ever skyboxes and nearly doubling the number of fans able to attend matches.
Osborne also pushed a major expansion of Memorial Stadium's east side that by next fall will add 38 luxury boxes and about 6,000 seats. It will push the stadium's capacity to about 92,000, helping Nebraska better compete with some of the big houses in the Big Ten.
A critical component of that stadium project is a first-of-its kind athletic research complex that will allow for study of athletic performance and brain injuries. Department officials say the project harkens back to Osborne's football coaching days: Whether it was the latest in weight training, nutrition or equipment, Osborne was always looking for an edge.
The culmination of all the building will come next fall, when the new basketball arena, volleyball venue and East Stadium project all come online.
"From top to bottom," said John Ingram, the athletic department's chief capital planner, "our facilities will be second to none."
But beyond bricks, mortar, budgets, conferences and won-loss records, Osborne has always emphasized that college athletics is about students, relationships and people. It's that personal touch that Husker coaches and athletes say they'll always remember about the man they usually just call "Coach."
If Osborne is in town, he tries to attend every home athletic event. He's a regular not only at football games, but also baseball and basketball games, volleyball and wrestling matches and track and gymnastics meets. Department colleagues tell Osborne he doesn't really need to do all that, but he feels compelled to.
"I think they appreciate the fact you're interested to show up, but I also enjoy watching it," he said. "It's not work to me."
No matter the sport, Husker coaches say, Osborne watches intently and afterward often surprises them with his insight into the game. "It's amazing," said volleyball coach Cook. "If we don't play well, he'll know why we got beat."
And win or lose, Osborne will always be there with praise or a reassuring word for the coach and players. He always seems to know just what to say. "He understands what trials and tribulations you go through on a daily basis," said men's basketball coach Tim Miles. "Coach Osborne is the ultimate coach's coach."
Osborne also has strived to get to know all 600 Husker athletes on a first-name basis. And, in an unusual move for an athletic director, he tries to meet with every potential recruit. Many of them are too young to know the kindly gray-haired man beyond film clips on ESPN Classic. But their parents often swoon at the chance to meet Osborne.
Husker basketball player Brandon Ubel said he remembers visiting with Osborne while on a recruiting trip to Lincoln four years ago. He expected a quick, "Nice to meet you, hope you'll come." Instead Osborne tried to get to know him, asking lots of questions, and then spoke about the family atmosphere surrounding Nebraska athletics.
Every time Ubel has seen Osborne since, the athletic director has asked about his family, talked to him about school or internships and commented on the Huskers' latest game.
"You knew he genuinely cared," Ubel said. "That is something I'll always remember."
Likewise, Osborne said it's the interactions with athletes and staff that he'll miss the most as he moves into retirement.
He was first lauded and thanked at the Huskers' final home football game this fall.
At Pelini's suggestion, Osborne ran out from the tunnel with the team, joking that he was happy just to make it through without being run down by a 300-pound lineman. That trip to the far sideline was a lot farther than he remembered it being in his coaching days.
For the rest of his life he'll wear the title athletic director emeritus, and in that capacity he will serve as an adviser to his successor for another six months. His last official day as athletic director will be Monday -- the day before the Huskers play Georgia in the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl in Orlando.
Many had hoped to see Osborne instead go out with a Big Ten football championship and a New Year's Day date in Pasadena's Rose Bowl. That would have been the most fitting way for the old football coach to leave the field.
But Osborne and those close to him say he's not at all disappointed at missing out on that fairy tale ending. He says his biggest concern after the devastating loss to Wisconsin was how the Husker coaches and players were taking it. No one was more disappointed than they were, he said.
And besides, he said, "That's athletics." The game doesn't always end the way you hope.
Just weeks away from his 76th birthday, Osborne says his health is good. He works out at lunch almost every day.
In retirement, he plans to work more hands-on to grow the TeamMates mentoring program. It all started in 1991 with about two dozen Husker players who answered Osborne's call to work with school kids in Lincoln. It now has affiliates across the state and serves some 6,000 youth annually. Osborne himself meets each week with a boy he mentors in the program.
Osborne also will, no doubt, find time to do a little fishing.
Typical Osborne, he's been uncomfortable with all the attention he's been getting as he goes out the door. Whatever has been accomplished has been a team effort in the department, he said, with much of the credit also due to the fans. It's their passion and support that truly make the Big Red go, he said.
"I've been a little surprised by some of the reaction," he said. "I look at what I've done here as just like what most Nebraskans do. You get up, you go to work, you win some, you lose some. I don't see myself as having done anything remarkable."
Contact the writer: 402-444-1130, firstname.lastname@example.org
"The house that Tom built" by Henry Cordes ran in the Midlander of the Year section in the Omaha World-Herald on Dec. 30. Pick up a copy of Sunday's paper to see the section.
To order copies of this section or reprints of photos or pages, call 402-444-1014 or go to OWHStore.com
Pick up a copy of Sunday's paper to see the section.
To order copies of this section or reprints of photos or pages, call 402-444-1014 or go to OWHStore.com